How to Finish Nanowrimo with a Solid First Draft
It’s Preptober guys! That’s the name for the month before November, where we get crazy and try to plan for writing a whole novel in a month.
Insane! And completely addicting.
You might have heard some conflicting ideas about Nanowrimo. There are people out there who say it’s no good, it rushes you through a process that should take lots of time, the end product doesn’t even amount to a decent first draft… You get the idea.
These people aren’t wrong. I won Nanowrimo in 2014 with a barely passable excuse of a story that had sagging middle syndrome and a cobbled together “ending” that didn’t wrap the story up at all. The truth was I started Nanowrimo with a seed of an idea and no matter how much love and attention I threw at it, it failed to...er...blossom.
But this year is going to be different for both of us because I’m going to tell you how to finish Nanowrimo with a real first draft--complete with a beginning, middle, and end. We will do this by maximizing Preptober to its fullest so on November 1st, our seed is actually a full grown tree and all we have to is run around and catch all the fruit that’s falling like crazy (Did I take that metaphor too far…? Na, I think it works.)
Here’s how to do it:
Dig deep on theme and character.
So you have a story idea? Great. Most writers think the secret to prepping well for Nano is by doing some plotting, maybe building out a few key scenes or setting up a nice plot diagram. Don’t make this mistake. Starting with plot is like trying to make a layer cake by stacking the ingredients on top of each other (let’s start with a bag of flour, then balance the milk on top of that and stack the eggs on top of that…). You ACTUALLY want to start with character and theme.
You do this by answering these questions:
What point do I want my story to make?
What is my main character’s internal struggle? (Hint: It should connect to your point.)
What is getting in the way of my character overcoming that struggle (think external barriers, internal barriers, lies she believes)?
What happens in the story that forces her to confront this internal struggle?
2. Complete the PIxar story formula.
If you haven’t heard about this formula, it’s a game changer. It forces you to narrow your focus to your main character, establish their normal, address how they change, and get to an ending that matters. Here’s the formula:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
3. Now you can do some plotting.
Sketch a general overview of what you know (or think) will happen in your book. This will be loose ideas right now, and that’s okay. As you write this plot overview, ask yourself “How does this force my character to face her internal struggle? How does she overcome this internal struggle?”
4. Go on a hunt for meaningful subplots.
One of the hardest things about Nanowrimo is moving so quickly from idea to execution. Where normally we’d bat ideas around for days and brainstorm for weeks and have lots of epiphanies in the shower, we don’t have time for any of that.
To move the needle of idea generation up a notch, go on a hunt for subplots. But make sure they matter. Don’t just throw in ninjas. That’s fun, but ineffective and is nothing but filler. You don’t want that in a real draft, so why settle for filler during Nano?
Here’s how to find meaningful subplots.
Develop your side characters. Start with your main character and ask: How did she get her internal struggle (probably from mom, dad, a sibling, a best friend)? Go exploring in her past. Jot down anyone who played a significant role in giving her that monkey on her back and then take note of where they are when your story opens. Are they still in the picture? How will they continue to get in the way of your character? What about any mentors? Does anyone help her reach her goal?
Look at potential conflicts. If your character's internal struggle is feeling like a loser, what conflicts might they run in to? Their girlfriend might dump them because they whine too much. They might lose their new sales job because they are too insecure to make any sales. The list goes on, but to keep it relevant, make sure the potential conflicts tie in with either your story point or your character's internal struggle.
5. Make a list of all these scene ideas even if there are gaps.
If you’ve done all of the above, you probably have at least twenty scene ideas from the work you just did. Now it’s time to make yourself a list of all the potential scenes you’ve just mined from your little story seed.
And that’s how you set yourself up for a successful Nanowrimo draft. When you get stuck during the month of November--when you write all the scenes from your list and you still have half the month left--come back to this list and repeat steps three and four. Flesh out your novel overview with more detail now that you’ve written more. Look for any vague terms (like “he loses his job) and make them as specific as possible (“he loses his job at the 7-Eleven on the day his girlfriend breaks up with him because he lied on his resume”). Specifics beget specifics, as Lisa Cron says.
You should dig up at least a few new scenes just from revising your overview, but if not repeat step four and revisit subplots and potential conflicts. Then add all your new ideas to your scene list and jump back in to writing.
Pro Tip: As you write, keep your scene list next to you. You will probably have ideas for past or future scenes as you are writing. Make sure you write them down as soon as you think of them so you don’t forget them!